Sequim business owners face slow economy

Grant Cable greets customers with a cheerful "hello" as they walk through the door at Swain's Outdoor and asks how he can help them.

When customers request warm winter clothing or wool socks, he guides them to an area of the store that is nearly bare, with many pegs empty and others with only one or two products left to choose from. When the snow hit the North Olympic Peninsula right before Christmas, crowds of consumers flocked through the doors, Cable reported happily, and continued to shop at the family-owned outdoor store. Winter-related products are being sold as quickly as employees can stock the shelves.

The winter snowstorm that left snow and ice on the roadways for weeks and the threat of another storm on the weather front is the best thing that could have happened this year, according to Cable, the store's manager.

"The year was not so great," Cable admitted. "October and November were definitely slow but for December, the weather made it for us."

Overall, business is down 3 percent from the prior year. Expecting the new year to be just as slow as the past few months, management has cut inventory back 15 percent from last year, Cable said. "But we will stay with it," he assured. "We are not expecting to close."

In spring 2006, Swain's Outdoor relocated and downsized, shifting its retail focus slightly from housewares and hardware to primarily clothing and sporting goods, including name brands such as Carhartt, Roxy, Billabong, Columbia, Sketchers, Patagonia, SmartWool and Woolrich.

"The new brands are selling better for us and we will get more of those in the new year," said Jodi Hellman, clothing department manager.

Some products are selling better than others, Hellman said, noting that shoe sales between the Sequim and Port Townsend branches were up $1,500 from last year for the month of December, and that a list nearly two feet long containing the names and phone numbers of people wanting to buy YakTrax - lightweight traction devices that slip over the soles of a person's shoes - is sitting by the phone.

"I think people bought practical gifts this year," Hellman said.

Though the team at Swain's Outdoor is expecting a slow 2009, Hellman said she predicts sales to pick up again next fall.

Swain's Outdoor isn't the only Sequim business to report lower than usual earnings. Marti McAllister Wolf, owner of Pacific Mist Books, said sales were down for her, too.

"The day after Thanksgiving was good but the whole week after that was bad. Then business picked up a little bit until it snowed," McAllister Wolf said about the holiday season. "Overall, it's better than I expected but less than last year for December."

With the new year right around the corner, McAllister Wolf also is expecting a slow 2009 but said she plans to tough it out, encouraging residents to shop locally and support "mom and pop" businesses.

"If the stores are healthy, the community is healthy," McAllister Wolf said.

Pacific Mist Books is in its 16th year of business.

"This isn't the first sight of hardship we've seen," McAllister Wolf said optimistically. "We've made it through road reconstruction, storms and remodeling. We will just have to grin and bear it."

Theresa Rubens, owner of Solar City - a women's apparel store that also offers skin-care products and tanning services - said business was "holding steady" but definitely experienced a decrease in gift certificate purchases in 2008. "People were afraid to buy gift certificates in case we weren't around next year," Rubens said. "We did sell some but were definitely down."

After completing a fall customer satisfaction survey, with "several hundred" results, Rubens said the store will be adding new product lines in January but wouldn't say what. "They are a big surprise for the new year," she said mysteriously. "But we want the community to know we feel pretty solid and we are not going anywhere."

Not all negative

Some businesses in Sequim claim 2008 treated them better than ever.

"We are very fortunate, we had an amazing last quarter," said Debbie Somers, store manager of Karen's Frame Center in Sequim. "The last quarter was better than the first three."

Karen's Frame Store, a Port Angeles business of eight years, opened a satellite store in

Sequim in October 2007. The business is a full-service frame shop that offers custom and ready-made frames, poster packages and photo restoration.

"I think with the cold weather that people are inside more and thinking about their homes," Somers said. "That bodes well for us and we are looking forward to the new year."

Mary Pat Cain, owner of Heather Creek, also reported above-average earnings.

"We had a fantastic year," Cain said happily. "We were up probably 30 percent from last year, approximately."

Cain attributed the profit increase to a particular way of running the business. "I've been working in the store full time whereas last year I was at home a lot taking care of a family member," she said. "I found that the store is me. I love the people, developing relationships and have a unique way of getting through to the public what we are all about."

"Nobody really needs anything," Cain continued. "But we all look for things that make us feel grounded and peaceful in a world that's full of trouble and confusion."

During the past five years in business, Heather Creek - which sells trendy home décor - has doubled in size twice. "But we stay on a strict budget," Cain said firmly. "Everything in the store is paid for. I have my set-aside budget that I know I can spend and I don't buy on credit."

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